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Can better knowledge management get us closer to net zero?

Sustainability By Rory Huston, Global Head of Knowledge Management – 06 January 2020

Close up of a hand touching a Van de Graaff generator on a black background


Rory Huston in front of office windows outisde in a blue shirt

Rory Huston

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The Future is already here...

One of my favourite quotes that I like to trot out on any given occasion is from William Gibson “The Future is already here, it’s not just very evenly distributed yet”. The same can be said of the Net Zero mission our industry is now grabbing with both fists; we know what we need to do, but how do we go about doing it? As a knowledge manager, what can I do to turbo charge this?

My fundamental belief (as you would expect from a knowledge manager) is that if we can better access the knowledge in our company’s (and our industry’s) collective brain, we can really do something special.

How do we deploy Knowledge Management in Cundall?

If you are lucky enough (!) to meet the rare beast of a knowledge manager, you will notice we are all quite different in our approach, depending on the organisation we are in. This is because the role is driven around leveraging value with tactics heavily influenced by the company culture and scale, that join the dots.

My flavour of knowledge management is innately social. At Cundall, we are almost 1000 minds strong, each passionate about the built environment in some way, and everyone has a special interest or super power. As I go around the business, it’s quite mind blowing what different people are into; forensic interest in our specifications, optimising Revit workflow, tools like Trello to manage design teams more effectively, how to decrease carbon in our structural designs, predicting future climate adaptation, and you should see my R&D colleague Ed Wealend’s eyes light up when he talks about microbial biotech and mycelium building products (they are made of mushrooms for those in the know!).

When you have someone else into the same things as you to spur you on, you’ll often achieve more faster. We’ve seen an explosion in collaboration across our offices in the last year, through careful use of webinars, newsletters and social media tools. The community connections between our staff are getting stronger, turbo charging the Cundall brain. So with all this enthusiasm in 25 different offices, my role is one part programme manager, one part “knowledge dating agency”, bringing the right people together.

Of course, this is not limited to Cundall. Our industry has unbelievable depths of knowledge, talent, and experience, to make fantastic built environments for people to thrive, the best are also low energy or even net positive.

The Challenge

Our industry knows what it takes make great buildings for people and for planet. After all, we have been doing it for thousands of years but we often don’t; why? Cost? Lack of ambition? Lack of understanding? Our industry has all the tools to deliver a net zero building now, so how do we make this mainstream?

I think there are three main places knowledge management can help this mission:

  • Understanding the complexity
  • Enabling greater transparency through effective use of channels to connect like minded people
  • Connecting experts with projects aligned to their expertise, where ever they may be, not just where the project is.

The Complexity

Buildings are complex, design is a complex non-linear process, commercial arrangements are complex, and the assumptions for how a building can operate is complex. For example, considering our current legislative framework, legislation like Part L is not intended to predict performance of how a building will perform in practice, but to ensure that building designs are comparable, and meet a minimum standard on the proverbial drawing board. It’s well documented that a significant portion of operational energy isn’t even modelled at the design stage (Cf. 'Delivering building Performance', chaired by our Julian Sutherland), so we are applying rule of thumb on rule of thumb, with little real feedback on how our buildings operate in practice.

UKGBC Snippet

Clients might often view the offer of an additional scope for Soft Landings “to make your building work as intended” as something that should be in the service already, so we might often stay silent when explaining how the regulations are set up (though the tide is of course turning, with many becoming interested in initiatives such as Design for Performance, of which we were a founding partner). Often the person with the right answer isn’t in the position to apply that answer on a project due to other mechanisms at play in the contractual landscape. This is one of the reasons I find Integrated project delivery (IPD) models so intriguing. Anyway. I digress.

So how do we educate and change our industry to look at these solutions, and support our clients and design partners understand what we know, and vise versa? How do we do this at scale? When the whole design team can apply it’s knowledge at the start of a project, we are bound to produce better buildings.


I think we are at a really exciting time, with the mix of workplace technologies, such as Trello, Skype Broadcast, cloud based 365 products, and online newsletters all becoming very maturely used in our culture, complemented by the exciting visual programming tools, and with machine learning / AI starting to guide our design process too. These new efficiencies are giving us the chance to get on top of the complexity more, to understand each other’s expertise more deeply, to communicate the data better; and ultimately getting us ready to help our clients realise lower carbon designs that are better for people. We have set up various internal webinars and newsletters, that are enabling us to learn from each other, and also to build better, richer networks in the company. The technologies are not a substitute for conversation, but mean you get to talk to the right person about the right thing, driving a richer learning environment.

Connecting the right opportunities with the right skill sets

The challenge now is to identify clients, architects, contractors and the whole supply chain who are open to these challenges, and interested in making bold steps forward to share our knowledge more deeply, early on in a project. Where we measure success on outcomes, and risk and reward are balanced across the whole design team. Our work for forward thinking clients like the University of Wollongong in Australia, which recently achieved Living Building Challenge status, was driven by a vision to be highly sustainable.

We can do this! Lets get our brains together, and see how we can help each other!

What next?

The status quo is often built on theory, rules of thumb, and assumptions, with little in the way of feedback loops, but I imagine this will change rapidly in the next decade. We have thousands of offices in the UK, built to BCO or similar standards, hundreds of schools to the recent BB series, and hospitals to HTMs that we could and should learn from (and machine learning will undoubtedly do just that in the coming years). Finding channels and mechanisms to leverage this data, the expertise, and be able to model with increasing detail will be incredibly exciting over the next few years.

But the first steps for any organisation must be to look at how it can connect its’ people better, so “Cundall knows what Cundall knows” to plagiarise Lew Platt, a former CEO of Hewlitt Packard, and how we add your knowledge as an industry partner into this exciting puzzle. Leveraging big data, breaking down the silos between engineering, architecture, and commercial aspects of design. We are actively seeking design partners and clients with the same drive and ambition as us, so we can learn together.

What a year.

I’ve had a great first year at Cundall; there is so much passion, and excellent design for our mission to create great built environments, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can develop for you next! To leave you with one last final quote…“Your future success depends on developing a new kind of expertise: the ability to leverage your proprietary knowledge strategically and to…. tap fallow, undeveloped knowledge.” HBR, 2015.

Thanks for reading and please get in touch if you're interested in hearing more about our journey to net zero!